in Frieze | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

Deep Sea Diving

Juan Uslé

in Frieze | 02 JAN 97

While Spanish painter Juan Uslé's early work directly reflected the specific reality of his life in Santander, by the end of the 80s, the language of painting itself had become the protagonist. In attempting to follow this evolution, from direct existential experience to the process of dematerialisation, we come across certain preoccupations and observations. Paradoxically, these bring together apparently distinct periods into a single coherent measure of a life. His work can be seen as a constant gnawing at a bone, questioning how experience should be represented, and providing us with an introspective look into the nature of memory and emotion. Uslé asks himself about the obscure meanings of the relationship between landscape, eye and brain. He persuasively interrogates what lies between reality and perception. As his memory clouds over, he is left with nothing but the work itself, and his investigation inevitably turns to the nature of pictorial language. What he proposes is a series of endless beginnings that lead him towards an ironic and deconstructive analysis of painting. In the space of a decade, we witness the artist's move from the painting of landscapes to the landscape of painting.

In 1986 Uslé left his home, in the watermill at Puente Nuevo in the Miera valley, for Susilla, a small village caught between the provinces of Santander and Palencia. Here he painted in a 16th century chapel used on Sundays for Mass, where he found conditions similar to those of his childhood on the River Cubas - the rain, the fields, the light. Forced back into memory, Uslé moved towards a series of ambiguous, mysterious and brooding landscapes - works such as Suva (1986) and Casita del Norte (Small House from the North, 1986). They are, to use Gerard Manley Hopkins' term, 'inscapes': images held in the mind's eye within which things appear and disappear. Like musical constructions, simultaneously muted, moving, swelling and subsiding, their vitality lies in the minute details of tonal distinctions, their discrete transitions, and in the constant qualifying of an expansive energy.

This period could be seen to culminate in the emblematic 1960-Williamsburg (1987), painted just after Uslé's arrival in New York. Effectively setting up the theme of a journey, it demarcates the move from experience and memory towards the imminent loss of memory and the irresistible pull of abstraction. In this work a boat travels from New York to Santander, whereas Uslé himself had just done the trip in reverse. A companion piece to the earlier painting 1960 (1986) that deals with a shipwreck off the coast of Santander witnessed by Uslé as a child, its composition is almost the same, except the boat is now set in the sea and surrounded by water and uncertainty. The viewer witnesses Uslé literally moving into something else, undertaking his own rite of passage into a new culture. The works slide into dream time, into fluid reverie. They are under the sea, lost in the water, slowly drowning beneath the weight of loneliness and loss.

Uslé set up home in a windowless Brooklyn studio that looked like the inside of a submarine, and built a captain's cabin at one end. Reading Jules Verne, the artist was deeply impressed by Captain Nemo's affirmation that 'the eye is the brain'. If this is the case, thought Uslé, clarity of vision means a penetration of the meanings of the world. Painting becomes a place from which to talk: a site for the articulation of a grammar and syntax of self. Like Nemo, Uslé dreamt his landscapes in the eye without the need for a periscope. In each work of the series 'The Last Dreams of Captain Nemo' (1988-90) he maintained a constant temperature while trying out different strategies and attitudes in an attempt to amplify his world.

Around this time, Uslé produced his first large landscapes to be painted in New York. Works such as Gulf Stream (1989) or Crazy Noel (1988) are aquatic compositions where the background comes forward and the objects disappear; the landscape has dissolved into water and atmospheric conditions. These works consist of layers of loosely worked paint that hover mysteriously within the flow and saturation of light. Nothing is still. He gives us neither bands nor planes but transitional zones that both absorb and saturate. The works talk of absence, substituting for the image an immersion into water and self so as to confront what it is that painting can now effectively represent. Gulf Stream seems drawn directly from Uslé's reading of Verne's text: 'The sea has its large rivers like the continents. They are special currents known by their temperature and their colour. The most remarkable of these is known by the name of the Gulf Stream... leaving the Gulf of Bengal where it is warmed by the perpendicular rays of a tropical sun, it crosses the Straits of Malacca along the coast of Asia, turns into the North Pacific to the Aleutian Islands, carrying with it trunks of camphor trees and other indigenous productions, and edging the waves of the ocean with the pure indigo of its warm water.' 1 These works are not illustrations but metaphors of feeling; as Uslé has noted, 'at its root, my work is concerned with sensation, with the abstract essence of landscape, or with the search for light'. 2

Uslé's move to New York left him languageless and victim of his own aimless drifting. Unable to find any effective holds, he moved with the flow. Nothing cohered, and he found no way of stopping the endless swirl of images that entered the eye - the unceasing flights, constant circlings, troubled depths, whirlpool movements, dark stains, sudden transitions, torrential outpourings and endless accumulations of his paintings that mirrored his psychological condition. These states are apparent in works such as Coney Island 2 (1991), with its jab of red that makes a lethal stab at the seascape, or Layers (1990-91), passionate and distilled with its blue-grey rain that falls on a lunar landscape.

There is no way for the artist to escape what Harold Bloom calls 'the anxiety of influence' - the weight of a specific tradition in the elaboration of an artist's language. Uslé has his own long line of dominant fathers: Miró, Mondrian, Reinhardt, de Kooning, Malevich, Newman, Duchamp, but like all fathers they fall under question. Seduced by language itself, Uslé moved into its highways and byways - its deceits, its affectations, its overwhelming clarities, its sophisticated mix of brilliance and simplicity, its complex honesty and easy lies. Aware that narcissistic self-regard lies at the centre of the poetic ego, Uslé used deconstruction as a methodology to dissolve this into irony. Was he seriously flirting with an alternative vision? Did the tension and surprise now lie in the concept rather than in the realisation?

La Habitación Ciega (The Blind Room, 1992) can be read in such terms. The title refers specifically to Ad Reinhardt and the way in which he questions the nature of the artist's involvement in a work of art: 'What kind of love or grief is there in it? I don't understand, in a painting, the love of anything except the love of painting itself. If there is agony, other than the agony of painting, I don't know exactly what kind of agony that would be. I am sure external agony does not enter very importantly into the agony of our painting.' 3 In short, there is nothing behind the picture, nothing but the image. Uslé would say that the pictorial medium is not simply made up of its physical component - it also consists of technical know-how, cultural habits and conventions whose definition is in part historical. The blind room of the title represents memory and the mind: this room has to be closed if one is to paint, but if the lights are then switched on, all the insects of memory come out to play. In other words, for Reinhardt, the blind room is a place to await the transcendental, but for Uslé it is an old trunk in the attic bundled full of memories.

Again and again the works interrogate the viewer, sometimes from a vantage point of extreme simplicity, sometimes from one of sought complexity. He shows us what the hand does and wants us to be aware of the pressure, the quantity of paint on the brush, where the hand stops, the whiplash potential of a line, and what it is that calls forth a figurative reference. He asks us to play along with him and to think of speed, surface, weight, and of the broken rhythms of stops and starts. We move from landscape to urban chaos, from ironic quotes to the elegance of awkward bedfellows. Uslé moves in and out of stories without ever fully narrating them. Things find their own justification for appearing. He delights in subtle spatial arrangements. He wheedles, laughs, disturbs, contradicts, and digresses. All possible attitudes and strategies can be performed on the surface in a kind of systemless system, full of ticks that never slide into mere recipe. He exploits polarities: a thin line and a thick one, fast and slow, gloss and matte, grid and gesture, construction and expression, without ever becoming programmatic.

His series 'Peintures Celibataires' (Bachelor Paintings, 1993), punning ironically on Duchamp, underlines the fact that each work stands alone as a sociable bachelor. For example, Me enredo en tu cabello (I Get Caught Up in Your Hair, 1993) literally shows the brushstroke playing over and under the painting, creating the impression of hair or woodgrain. Yet when the eruption of a sudden horizontal band produces a shift, we lurch into a sensation of landscape. Mi-Mon (1993), on the other hand, picks up on Uslé's readings of Miró and Mondrian, combining the spontaneous with the cold. He is clearly moved by Mondrian's search in his early works for contact with a world that lay beyond, or beneath, the outer shell of matter. Uslé may well have felt the weight of Mondrian's remark that 'the cultivated man of today is gradually turning away from natural things, and his life is becoming more and more abstract.' 4 However, he recognised that he was under no onus to choose between the two. Questioning language as much as painting, in Mi-Mon he simultaneously made use of the space-defining web and capricious, organic elements. Bringing these elements together, Uslé juxtaposed what Modernists had seen as opposed concepts: the rational against the organic; a world without curves and diagonals against the Surreal.

With his Mal de sol (Sunstroke, 1994) series, Uslé's work became increasingly more prolix, allusive, and convoluted, openly tolerant of chance and disorder. It defined a kind of anti-form, feeding off and stealing from painting's bones. Mal de sol refers to the images that danced across his mind under the effects of sunstroke. When he tried to recall the incident he saw snatches of light that were like the shaking of a kaleidoscope: 'I cannot remember the forms well, but I do remember the weight of their light. Without becoming patterns, some of the broken-up images unfolded into almost geometrical shapes similar to dry flowers or stars. I could not stand them and even with my eyes shut they dazzled me. They were never fixed and in their active fragmentation they gave birth to new images.' 5 The painting that gives the title to the series is an extraordinary work, throwing out shadows from elements that aren't there and juxtaposing frosted twigs with a surreal organic shape. Looped under it is a kind of pin-striped shirt cuff. Three rings that have a loose relationship to the horizontal bands are inset on the other side of the work, where a screen-like, blurry effect reveals no legible image. Utterly off-key, the painting is as empty as one of the Kurosawa winter landscapes that Uslé so admires; everything lies close to the surface.

It was in these recent works that Uslé used painting as a means of exploring language itself. The title Asa-Nisi-Masa (1994-95) comes from Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), and are the words of a spell the children use when, on the point of falling asleep, they see the eyes of a face in a picture looking at them. Feeling frightened, they say the magic words in order to protect themselves. The three words flash out across the work in three movements as if registering a voice on an oscilloscope. Since the painting cannot represent the world, the best we can do is to surrender to its spell; the work stares back at us, just as we look at it. The question for Uslé then became how to find a relationship to reality within the discipline of painting. Such relationships depend on one's personal circumstances, but Uslé affirmed his desire to look for what he calls a quality of lightness in painting and in living. He turned to multiple layers of colour and to the subtle traces of the brush. Without engaging in a completely meta-pictorial process, the more he explored the field, the more an ironic self-consciousness, a certain intertextuality, came into play. In his essay 'The Exhaustion of Literature', John Barth notes how the death of the novel became the inspiration for a new kind of fiction, and Uslé has similarly observed that 'painting is an invention framed in search of its own redefinition. In my case, as in a path split into occasionally opposed zigzags, solitude and silence have been necessary to favour more serene, less anxious, encounters.' 6 But while Uslé's journey has involved significant shifts in perspective, in accordance with a careful and cultivated maturity of the mind's eye, his essential concerns have remained the same.

Exploiting the potential for disorder, Uslé holds it in a strange tension. Alisa Tager has noted perceptively that 'by layering transparency upon transparency, flickering line upon diaphanous plane, his paintings are simultaneously thin and juicy.' 7 Light flickers across his work, piercing through, momentarily bathing it. The endless nervous activity in what seem to be secondary areas of the work often leaves the viewer confused, while Uslé smiles perversely. Deconstructing the metaphysical dogma of abstraction as a code, he puts in its place a less pretentious, less egocentric form of exploration. Uslé's talk about lightness is not only about the floating presences of the works, but also about a way of being. Alone with his imagination, with nothing to believe in, new forms of freedom come within his reach. He makes his own rules from the code, as if recognising the inability of traditional beliefs and structures to make sense of contemporary experience. Proceeding through action and destruction, convinced that things attach themselves to wrecks, he reads new content into a known form of abstraction.

Increasingly, Uslé has come to deal with the ways in which consciousness reads a world replete with uncertainty. He tolerates anxiety and accepts the untidy contingency of existence. He celebrates the problematic, the discontinuous, and what Donald Barthelme felicitously referred to as 'the wine of possibility'. He changes the way we look at life and is perplexed by what he sees. Yonker's Imperator (1995-96), for example, accommodates with immense ease a range of distinct but unrelated grammatical signs: line, brush stroke, a white almost figurative element in the centre, a squiggle like wire wool. It is a highly artificial and self-reflexive work.

As in de Kooning's last paintings, where the artist had to use a different kind of intelligence to compensate for his physical disabilities, for Uslé line becomes not the act, or an outpouring of nervous activity, but its representation. Uslé, in other words, recognises the way in which life traces itself, gathering the discordant and incongruous into a loose collage and converting the subject into a nexus through which things pass. This concentration on language as the most intimate representation of who we are becomes increasingly acute in his recent work. The paintings from 1995-96, with grounds prepared almost as if they were to be used for fresco, can be understood as sensitive surfaces that register all movements as acts of loving, subtleties that demand our fullest attention, as ironic twists, or acts of complicity. They explore new zones of subjectivity, but never let the spectator off the hook.

1. Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Penguin Books, London, 1992, p.66

2. Juan Uslé, New Spanish Visions, Albright Knox, Buffalo, 1990 p.107

3. Ad Reinhardt, Theories of Modern Art, ed H.B. Chipp, University of California Press, 1968, p.565

4. Piet Mondrian, Natural Reality and Abstract Reality, Theories of Modern Art, ed. H.B. Chipp, University of California Press, 1968, p.321

5. In conversation with the author, October 1996

6. John Barth, The American Novel since World War II, ed Marcus Klein, Fawcett Pubs, Greenwich Conn, 1969, p.274; Juan Uslé, The Ice Jar, John Good Gallery, NY, 1994, n.p.

7. Alisa Tager, The Ice Jar, ibid.